Connecting Job Creators To Shortline Railroads

Connecting Job-Creating Rail Lines
Photo: Wiki Commons.

The Washington state Senate has passed a bipartisan bill that loosens the state Growth Management Act’s (GMA) rural land development restrictions, allowing local governments to site businesses where they have freight mobility access via shortline railroads. State lawmakers say the change could bring thousands of good-paying jobs to Clark County alone. ESHB 1504 was approved by the state Senate 41-8 on Wednesday April 12, after receiving a “do pass” recommendation from the Senate Local Government Committee March 28. The bill was approved by the state House in a 83-17 vote on March 7. It is one of several introduced this session aspiring to reform GMA policies that some lawmakers believe have had negative consequences in rural parts of the state.

Offering More Rural Economic Opportunities

At a March 23 public hearing of that committee, Amber Carter told lawmakers that “this is about jobs. Our rural economies need opportunity.” Carter is a lobbyist for the Port of Vancouver, Identity Clark County, and the Portland Vancouver Junction Railroad.

Shortline railroad companies run railroad lines of shorter distance compared to national railroad networks such as BNSF Railway or Union Pacific Railroad. Although most of the state’s 23 shortline railroads are located in Eastern Washington, there is one in Clark County that could provide freight mobility for manufacturers that want to locate there, but under current GMA regulations cannot find a suitable location.

Improving Washington’s Favorable Business Climate

ESHB 1504 primary sponsor is State Rep. Liz Pike (R-18). She told told Lens that “the reality is, these companies come to Clark County (because) we have a favorable tax climate compared to Oregon. Oregon has a nine percent state income tax and they don’t have a very good transportation system, so companies want to flee Oregon for southwest Washington.”

The bill boasts many Democrat cosponsors, including Majority Floor Leader Gael Tarleton (D-36) and State Reps. Brian Blake (D-19), Deputy Majority Whip Jessyn Farrell (D-46), Jake Fey (D-27), Larry Springer, and Beth Doglio (D-22). Its companion bill is ESB 5517, sponsored by State Sen. Lynda Wilson (R-17). That bill passed the state Senate on February 28 in a 38-11 vote, but has not advanced since a March 21 public hearing in House Environment Committee.

Under current GMA regulations, counties and cities are required to identify agricultural, forest, and mineral resource land to preserve for commercial use. ESHB 1504 would allow counties and cities east of the crest of the Cascade mountains to choose whether to authorize development on that land for freight rail purposes. If passed, the state Department of Commerce would submit a report starting in 2022 every two years until 2032 detailing the number of job gained, tax revenue differences, and the impact on resource land due to freight use.

Amendment Expands Bill’s Reach

The original bill would have applied only to eastern Washington counties with populations of 240,000, restricting it to Yakima, Spokane, and Clark counties. An amendment introduced in Senate Local Government by Chair Shelly Short (R-7) prior to the March 28 vote removed that clause. She told colleagues that the amendment was made following conversation with key House lawmakers who appeared open to the change.

The Search For Appropriate Manufacturer Location

However, Pike has emphasized access to the shortline railroad in Clark County. She told colleagues March 23 that “four companies just in the last three years…wanted to bring a total of 7,500 new, living wage jobs, and they all had two things in common: they needed at least 100 acres for their site and they needed a freight rail corridor, a shortline railroad.”

“We have to do all we can to put those railroads to use for us and the economic development potential that they contain for our communities,” she added. “There’s only so much land that’s available along the shortline railroads.”

Carter later testified that other parcels are available to employers, but “they’re not in use for a reason. They’re not big enough.”

Opposed was Futurewise State Policy Director Bryce Yadon. He told the committee that “there is, in our opinion, more than enough land available within the urban growth boundary to do this kind of economic development. We would actually have no problem with this in most cases. We are just concern with the loss of the agricultural lands of long term commercial significance in this case.”

However, State Sen. Tim Sheldon (D-35) observed “that industrial type job or a distributor or something that’s related to rail is going to be so much higher wage than agricultural related jobs.”

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